Zootopia, an Impressionist Masterpiece and a Turkish Repast

Sunday, Mar 12, 2017: Washington

Zootopia, an Impressionist Masterpiece and a Turkish Repast

We awoke on our second day in Washington to eat breakfast while listening to the telly that predicted the coming of a massive blizzard on Tuesday. Temperatures were supposed to get successively lower as the days progressed—so much for our desire to get away from the cold! Notwithstanding the predictions, we hurried through breakfast of muesli with yoghurt and hot buttered toast with coffee before we showered and got ready for a day outdoors.

By 9.00 am, Corinne was driving us downtown—a very generous gesture on her part, although we were more than happy to take the metro (underground) from the nearest stop. As we drove through the main streets of the capital, I realized how much I was relishing the architecture of every building for each façade was completely different from the other. As we passed through churches, private residences, apartment buildings and the like, I felt silly that we had stayed away from the capital for so many years and made only cursory stops through it.

Exploring Washington’s Zoo:

It is a little hard to imagine that we, who are devoted to museums and art galleries, would make a bee-line for the Zoo in a city that boasts the treasures of the Smithsonian .  But since our aim was to explore places we had never seen before and because the capital’s zoo is reputedly one of the country’s finest, it made perfect sense that we should head there first. Corinne dropped us right outside the main gate which is flanked by gigantic sculptured lions and, within minutes, we found ourselves at the Visitor’s Center. Sadly, they were unable to offer us maps, but our guidebooks did the trick in leading us to the most important parts of the zoo.

The zoo is located in a sprawling mass of well-landscaped property. Laid out in the middle of the 19th century, it is surprisingly natural in outlook and design. The highlights are the giant pandas that are always present in the zoo on loan from the Chinese. As one only rarely sees these animals, in the wild or in captivity, they are a huge attraction and most visitors head to their section first.

Imagine our delight when we found the pandas (in the Asian section) bright, alert and hungry when we arrived at their pits. Bamboo grows in luxurious wildness all around their enclosures and for very good reason—pandas spend 18 out of 24 hours of each day eating—and all they eat is bamboo!!! Fortunately, bamboo grows very quickly. There has, therefore, been no dearth of food for their munching pleasure. To our good luck, one of the pandas decided to ham it just for our cameras and deliberately ambled towards a straw hammock where he parked himself with a huge stalk of bamboo that he slowly proceeded to consume. Our video cameras whirred and our still cameras and phone cameras had a field day as we tried to record the delightful sight. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the sight but there were other pandas in the enclosure that also demanded our attention.

Other creatures that left an impression on us were flying orangutans, massive black gorillas, lion-faced tamarins and a scary-looking anaconda (the world’s largest snake). There were loads of poisonous snakes such as adders, vipers and cobras in glass tanks but it was the boa constrictor, all curled up, together with the anaconda that was more memorable to me. In addition, we saw seals, sea lions, Asian elephants and—get this, a white Sumatran tiger (all seemingly within a few feet from us). There were birds galore, alligators, crocodiles, giant tortoises that were as big as small cars, and a host of other interesting animals that had us swooning. It truly was a wonderful morning and by pacing ourselves carefully, resting wherever we could, stretching our calves to avoid discomfort or foot soreness, we managed to see everything worthwhile in about four hours.

Would we recommend a day at the Washington Zoo? Most certainly…and especially for children. Best of all it is free of charge!

On a Date with Renoir at the Phillips Collection:

It is astonishing when you come to think of it, that one of the world’s most renowned Impressionist paintings is not to be found in the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, not in the National Gallery in London or even in the National Gallery in Washington—but in a small, nondescript private collection in Washington DC called The Phillips Collection. What is also astonishing is that we have never seen it ourselves—despite making several trips to Washington DC over the years. Hence, it was a priority on our To-Do List and since it was open until 7.00 pm on Sundays, it made sense to head to the Phillips.

Located on a quiet side street not far from the famous Dupont Circle, The Phillips Collection has a hefty entry fee—fortunately, my Metropolitan Museum of Art ID card gets me (and a companion) into most of the world’s finest art collections for free–and the same perquisite prevailed here. Armed with our entry tags, we entered the lovely private mansion of a very wealthy couple called Duncan and Marjorie Acker Phillips whose love of contemporary art, led to their amassing of some of the most significant works in the 1920s. Although the canvasses hung initially in their home—a genteel mansion–they acquired the property next door to theirs and converted it into an art gallery for the browsing pleasure of the public.

Over the next few decades, they collected works by all the leading lights of the era. However, their most famous acquisition and the one that all art lovers head directly to see is the gorgeous painting entitled Luncheon of the Boating Party that occupies a room almost entirely by itself. Its vast proportions and pleasing composition leave the viewer stunned. Featuring as its central character, the model who would become Renoir’s wife, Aline Charigot, it was exhibited in 1882 and caused an immediate sensation. Duncan Phillips bought it in 1923 from its owner, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel for $125,000—probably the costliest painting he had ever owned.

Posed at the Maison Fournaise, a restaurant on the Seine at Chatou, are a host of friends and acquaintances that Renoir knew well, including the woman who would become his wife. They are casually dressed and seen making conversation over glasses of wine. The color in the composition is stunning but it is the soft images created through the famous blurred lens of the Impressionist painter that renders it delightfully charming. Needless to say, we spent a long while in front of the painting and whipped out our phones to get some Wikipedia notes on it—in order to appreciate its nuances more deeply. I am delighted to note that with the viewing of this painting, I have, in fact, seen all 100 Masterpieces of Art that the art critic Marina Vaizey provides in her book of the same name. I had bought the book several years ago in Bombay and it has taken me about 33 years to see them all as I have made my way through cities like Paris and Florence and small towns such as Cambridge and Oxford to see each of them in the flesh.

In addition to this masterpiece, the collection boasts works by Picasso (The Blue Room which features a canvas by Toulouse-Lautrec in the background was especially interesting), Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro and Sisley which make the collection quite remarkable. What was even more interesting was a special retrospective on the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which occupied almost an entire floor of the museum. Filled with the publicity posters that he designed for such night clubs as the Chat Noir, the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge, viewers were able to see his works in progress.  A large number of the printed lithographs of the originals had been acquired by Phillips and they form a substantial part of his collection. From Aristide Bruant to the famous La Goulue, from Jane Avril to May Milton (whose figure hangs in a poster in Picasso’s Blue Room), the big names of the period are to be seen in glorious color as they reproduce the gaiety of a bygone era. It was simply delightful and we loved every second of the exhibition. We then walked across via a bridge to the mansion of the Phillips where a specially fitted Music Room with a splendid grand piano had been the venue of a concert that we could hear from the outside (tickets were required to enter). Inside we saw some of the most interesting paintings from Constable’s View of the River Stour to works by Bonnard and Degas.

It was 7.00 pm when we finished our perusal of the museum (at which point, it was being shut). We spent a short while in the gift shop and then called Corinne who was supposed to pick us up for our next appointment: dinner with herself and her friends in a restaurant nearby.

Dinner at Ottoman Taverna:

It was not long before Corinne and her friend Bill picked us up from the famed book shop at Dupont Circle called Kramerbooks which is also known for its Afterwords Café. We browsed about for a little bit while awaiting our pick-up and then coasted along to a Turkish Restaurant called Ottoman Taverna where our friends have eaten before and felt compelled to share their finds with us. Over the next couple of hours, we got to know another couple that joined Corinne and Bill—Debasis and his wife, Jyotsna Basu, who were originally from Calcutta. We ordered a number of delicious dishes—the lamb chops were a hot favorite. I ordered the Shrimp Stew as a starter and the Turkish lamb sausage over a white bean stew for my main course. Dessert was a sampler of kanafi (which Llew and I have relished all over the Middle East) and baklava—the layered dessert made with phyllo pastry and thyme honey. Not long after, we got back into Corinne’s car and made our way to her home for another restful night.

One thing was sure: we’d had a superb day and had crowned in with a memorable meal in the company of people who were tons of fun.

Until tomorrow, see ya…

Mr. Almeida Goes to Washington (with his Wife–Moi!)

MR ALMEIDA (AND HIS WIFE) GOES TO WASHINGTON

(OR WHAT I DID DURING MY SPRING BREAK) 

            Why Washington DC? Well, primarily because we were looking for some place close at hand and warmer than Connecticut (ha!) to spend Spring Break. We had last been tourists in our nation’s capital more than 25 years ago (when Llew, Chriselle and I had led my Dad who was visiting from Bombay on a tour of a few north-eastern US cities) and thought the time was ripe to re-discover the rich cultural and historical heritage of our own land. Also, we had a load of friends and relatives (some of whom have emigrated recently to the USA) who had extended frequent offers of hospitality. We thought it would be terrific to spend some quality time with them. So, there we were…Mr. Almeida and his wife would go to Washington!

Much has changed in our country since we last trod the capital’s touristic pavements. While in the years before the tragedy of 9/11, one could merely line up for entry tickets into the Capitol, the White House or the Pentagon, today, you need no less than three weeks of planning, writing to your own state senator’s office and procuring of timed tickets to enter these hallowed grounds. We felt fortunate that we had done tours of the first two, albeit decades ago. We’d have liked to have gone inside the Pentagon, but there is always something one ought to leave behind for a future trip, right? Well, as it turned out, we found several things we’ll have to do on another trip. Our aim was to try to get to as many places for the first time ever as possible. That way, we’d not feel bored, our touring would not be repetitive and, hopefully, we’d come away learning a lot more about our country and its people than we knew already.

So, off we went…please join me now on your own armchair travels through Pierre L’Enfant’s beautifully designed city of Washington.

Sat, Mar 11, 2017: New York-Washington

            We left our home in Southport, Connecticut, at exactly 7. 15 am on a quiet Saturday morning and by doing extraordinary time (though not hair-raising speeds), we arrived at our friend Corinne’s place in Lorton, VA, at just after 12 noon—exactly five hours from door to door. Corinne was delighted to see us again after a good ten years at least. Having just moved into a beautiful gated community, she was eager to share her new home with us. We were pleased with our en suite room on the main floor of her house and by the very classy way she has furnished and decorated her space to reflect her taste and interests.

After a late lunch of Pakistani-style Lamb (Corinne is a Catholic Goan from Karachi and a very old and good friend of Llew) and an endless catch-up on all that has gone on since her recent retirement from the International Monetary Fund where she worked for decades, we decided to go out for Mass. My aim was to attend Mass at the National (Episcopalian) Cathedral which we have visited before. But Corinne suggested the National Basilica (Catholic) of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Washington. She offered to drive us there and since neither of us had been there before, we opted to hear Mass there.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: 

As we were approaching the basilica, I was struck by its glorious architecture—Byzantine-Gothic in conception, it has humongous proportions. In fact, with its dome and its single minaret, you might well believe you are heading into a mosque. The parking lot was packed when we arrived just as Mass began. We hurried inside and were stunned by the size of the place and the congregation. At least 2,500 people can be seated in its pews with several hundred more standees. Mass had begun and the booming voice of the pastor echoed around the soaring heights of the nave. The ceiling and the shrines or Lady Chapels that encircle the basilica are covered with Byzantine-style mosaics composed of tiny bits of stone composed to form images of saints and of Our Lady. The dominant image just behind the altar is of Christ in Majesty. After Mass and Communion, we toured the precincts of the church and were struck by the varied shrines representing devotion to various avatars of the Virgin Mother: as Mother of Sorrows, as our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (headquartered in Paris, France), as the Black Madonna of Poland, as our Lady of Guadalupe, etc. As we circumnavigated the church, pausing to pray or to light a candle at each of the altars or shrines, we were stunned by the beauty, the workmanship and the devotion of the faithful that were involved in this mammoth project.

Corinne then led us down to the Crypt from where the Sunday Roman Catholic Mass is televised nationally throughout the USA through the mini-church in the basement. Sculpture of newer saints such as St. Teresa of Calcutta are dotted around these vast marble floors while stained glass windows in niches brought jeweled tones into the interior. It was all quite fascinating indeed and we could not believe that we have never toured a place that was initiated in the mid-1800s and that has become a primary center for Roman Catholic worship in America.

Dinner at Le Thai Restaurant:

Night had fallen by the time we entered Corinne’s car for the 25-minute drive home to Lorton. At her suggestion, we opted for Thai cuisine (which we both adore) at a modest place called Le Thai where the owner, Bobby, has known Corinne for years. We had Tiger Tears (marinated steak in a chilli dipping sauce) and Thai Chicken Wings for appetizers (both superb), Chicken Pad Thai, Panang Curry with Shrimp and Pad Se Ew (wide rice noodles with broccoli in a spicy soy sauce). Everything was grand with the proper balance of sweet, sour, spicy that is the hallmark of good Thai cuisine. We had no room for dessert, so we returned home to gab some more with hot tea as we slowly made our way to bed.

It has been a great first day and we were quite pleased with the start of our holiday.

Off and Away! Blissfully Homeward Bound Again!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Essex-London-New York

Finally the day dawned for my departure home again to the USA. I could not have been more ready! Indeed, while usually, I am sentimentally and nostalgically taking my last looks of my surroundings with wonder about when I will return, this time, I was so mentally set to leave that I did not wish to look back.

Preparing for Departure:

I awoke at 5.30 am and decided to have a very early shower. So before the rest of the Fradley household was up, I was done with the upstairs bathroom, had washed, dressed and had my backpack ready. By 7.15 am, I was downstairs joining Matt and the boys Jacob and Daniel who were deep into their breakfast bowls. I had Dorset muesli with skimmed milk and honey—a really hearty breakfast—when Rosa joined us. Matt said his goodbyes to me and left shortly for work.

Rosa and I continued our chatter over breakfast and the boys watched telly. But by 9.00, am, she was driving Jacob off to school, leaving Daniel with me. Fifteen minutes later, we were all in the car and she was taking me off to the station at Stanstead Mountfitchet to say goodbye to me before dropping Daniel off to his nursery. It had been a heartwarming two nights with his delightful family and I had enjoyed every second of it. My life away from home and in the UK was coming to a slow end as I had unwound fully with this family, enjoyed their family life, had partaken of their delicious generous meals and had found a way to start thinking of my life back home in the USA while in the serene bosom of their quiet ,almost-rural hamlet.

Back in London:

I caught the 9. 24 am train that came bang on schedule to drop me at Liverpool Street Station. There was a mistiness to the entire journey that allowed me to call several of my UK friends to say Goodbye and Thank-You. They all wished me a happy journey and safe return home. When I alighted at Liverpool Street, I went straight in search of Marks and Spencer to buy tinned Ox Tongue. Alas, they had only 3 cans, but I bought them all. Had I wanted more, I’d have had to go to the one on Bond Street and I decided I could do without the stress. I bought a few more biscuits from Tesco Metro at Bishopsgate (where I had a horrible experience with my credit card that I almost left behind in the store and got told by the clerk Monica there that it was not in the drawer—when all the time, it was!). Armed with my goodies, I took the bus back to NYU—an excruciatingly long and slow drive as there were some traffic issues .However, reach there I did.

The immediate business of putting away stuff from my backpack into one of my two suitcases and, at the same time, dividing the weight was far from easy. And although I have become something of a pro at it, it is still always stressful. Thankfully, this is the last time I will find myself in such a situation for a long time to come. About an hour later, after I said goodbye to my colleagues at NYU, I called an Uber cab to Bedford Square and went directly from Bloomsbury to the airport at 1. 30 pm—right on schedule. I had a very chatty Sikh cabbie who dropped me to Heathrow airport at 2. 30pm—Uber is so much cheaper and I ended up paying under 35 pounds.

Off Home—At Last!

All went well at Heathrow. Since I was a half an hour early and before my check-in counter could open , I indulged in one more treat–a Chocolate and Caramel Sundae at Carluccio’s (how could I leave the UK without one visit to Carluccio’s, right?). It filled me up and prepared me for the ordeal of checking two bags in and going through the strain of finding out whether I’d have to pay for extra baggage—fortunately, I had no such issues as I found myself a male traffic assistance called Stuart Brock with whom I flirted shamelessly so that he would overlook my excess weight. Well, my strategy paid and I was off without so much as paying an extra sou! There was then time enough to visit Jo Malone and spritz myself for the journey ahead as also the Lancome counter at Terminal 5 which has developed into a classier mall than most British high street malls. Sadly, there was nothing on sale at Harrods’, so I bought nothing. About an hour later, I was juicing up my phone and then making my way to my gate and in no time at all, on a very light flight, I had a most comfortable ride home. Throughout the flight I watched a TV series called Marcella, about a British detective, in eight episodes. I finished them all before we touched down. Talk about superb timing!

In Conclusion:

I could hardly believe that six incredible months in my life had passed just like that. I had done so much, seen so much, achieved so much, met so many people, changed house so often, moved far more than I had intended to, ticked off most items on my To-Do List and am living with a gigantic sense of fulfilment that will see me through a very long time to come with little longing to return.

So goodbye London and thanks for all the good times. May they roll again—but not too soon.

Thanks to all of you for following my blog posts and for armchair-traveling with me.

Until the next time when I am footloose again, cheerio…

Beautiful Bishop Stortford

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Stanstead Mountfichet, Essex

I am still jetlagged and on Bombay time—so I am still awaking at 4.00 am. However, I am able to return to sleep after I have spent an hour on my phone with Twitter. When I do surface, it is after 7.00 am. I wash and shower and join my newest little friends at breakfast which I eat with Rosa: Dorset Muesli with milk. It is delicious. We then focus on getting the kids dressed for school—only Jacob will go today while Daniel will hang out with us.

Off to Jacob’s School:

School is about a seven minute walk away but it is simply freezing and I do not enjoy getting out into the cold at all. Although layered warmly, smoke is pouring out of my mouth every time I blow air out—I feel like Puff the Magic Dragon! We arrive at the school where Jacob, who is thrilled I have accepted his invitation to come to his school, bounds off. Daniel returns home with us and Rosa immediately gets a fancy DeLonghi coffee machine ready to make me a cappuccino that is delicious when eaten with her homemade banana bread. We simply do not stop talking—there is so much to say. Next, we plan our day and after Daniel has watched some TV, we get ready to go out into the cold again.

Exploring Bishops Stortford:

The last time I had stayed with my friends Rosa and Matt, they lived in Bishops Stortford but had taken me exploring in Thaxted and Saffron Walden instead. They live now in a sprawling new gated community in Stanstead Mountfichet, but since we had not really explored Bishops Stortford, one of the oldest communities here in Essex, Rosa decides we must go there. Matt had suggested a visit to the Rhodes Museum (also known as the Bishops Sortford Museum). It turns out that the Rhodes family (of the famed Rhodes Scholarships in Oxford) hailed from Bishops Stortford and established themselves as colonial entrepreneurs from this hamlet.

Visiting the Rhodes Museum:

The Rhodes Museum is free to enter. We park our car and make our way, past the Theater that offers some fairly decent shows, to the museum where we are the only visitors for the day. The most striking elements of it are a wonderful Mural—which is actually an embroidered panel—very similar to the Bayeux Tapestry—that tells the story of the town in patchwork applique and embroidery. It is in glass cases high up on a wall but there is conveniently a gallery from which one can scrutinize it carefully at eye level. It is fantastic as one looks at its Tudor beginnings to its present.

Inside, the biggest attraction for me was the Domesday Book—my first time ever seeing one. This is a facsimile, of course, but it is fascinating, as I do not believe that I have ever seen one (not even in the British Library). The page is open to the entry on Bishops Stortford—which indicates how old the town is for the Book was decreed to have been a record of all land holdings in England under orders of William, the Norman Conqueror from France, who had just taken over England from the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. The script is unfamiliar to us and we guess that it is Anglo-Saxon.

There are also exhibits on the Rhodes’ family contribution to the area and to the world—heavy emphasis on colonial mining works in Africa (which would make any post-colonialist shudder), as well as memorabilia and articles that belonged to Cecil Rhodes. There are also section on Gilbey’s Gin (made in the region) and information on a prominent family known as Pye. I do wish I had more time to read everything but it is simply freezing in the museum—it is true that these places do not believe in wasting money on heating in the winter as there are so few visitors. We used the rest room and leave.

Lunch at Bills in the Town Center:

It is almost lunch time and we drive off to the Town Center past the Mound which is all that remains of a castle that once stood here. We also see a huge windmill that is also featured on the embroidered mural in the museum. Finally, we arrive at the car park at M and S where Rosa gets a parking voucher and we go off in search of lunch at Bills, where she has a two for the price of one voucher. There are lot of thrift shops on the main streets and I am sorely tempted to enter a few—I will do so after lunch.

At Bill’s, I order the Fish Pie (I have spent 6 months in England and not yet had fish pie—I realize that I must remedy that immediately!). It is haddock, cod and prawns smothered in a white cheesy sauce and blanketed with mashed potato flavored with chives. It could not be more delicious and I savor every mouthful. It is also huge—so I ask for half of it to be packed away for my lunch tomorrow. Rosa has a Bacon and Avocado Salad with a Chicken Skewer and Daniel has Bangers and Chips with a Chocolate Brownie and Ice-Cream to follow. It is my treat and I am sorry that Matt and Jacob are missing to enjoy it but we simply could not swing things to include them.

After lunch, I leave Rosa with Daniel as he finishes his dessert and I hurry off to the thrift shops. Alas, nothing catches my eye. Rosa catches up with me and I nip into M and S for some Battenburg Cake to take back home. Alas, they do not have the tinned tongue that I crave and always take to the US where it is not available. I shall try to get some from Oxford Street tomorrow.

Since I had booked a train ticket online to get back to London tomorrow, Rosa makes a short detour at the station so that I could print out my ticket and receipt. Armed with this treasure, I can arrive at the platform at the last minute tomorrow morning to board my train.

We hurry off to the car as we have to pick Jacob up from school. Daniel dozes off in the car and is dropped off home with me as Rosa hurries off to get Jacob. His friend Ryan returns with him and together they make a merry din as the three of them play and leave Rosa and me to nurse a cup of lemony tea.

This is the time Llew decides to Facetime with me as he needs my flight details. I chat with him for a while and give him the information he needs. He also chats with Rosa and with Daniel whom he meets online for the first time. I am pleased to be returning home to the US but loathe to imagine what the country will be like under the new Prez.

Soon enough, Ryan leaves, I go off for a short nap, the children spend time coloring, watching TV and playing with Rosa. Then it is time for their ‘tea’ (supper). They eat ham, cucumber, tomatoes and tiger bread and finish off with milk. They are such good children—I am struck by their obedience. Their parents will brook no nonsense and I can see that when Rosa tells them to do something, they know she means it and they comply. Most impressive! All the while, Rosa is busy turning one of Nigel Slater’s tagines into what will become a princely meal for us.

Another hour later, after they have watched some more TV and Matt returns home, their daily bedtime routine begins—baths, stories, prayers, bed. I watch some of the news on TV myself as I get more and more depressed at the thought of returning to Trummpppphhhh’s America. When they are both settled in for the night, their parents return to the kitchen. The aromas emanating out of the oven where Rosa’s casserole bubbles briskly are very comforting indeed.

Dinner with the Fradleys:

It is not long before I am settled with a delightful glass of white wine which I sip as we lay the table for dinner. Rosa gets out some couscous and we are about to eat it with boiled sweet corn and the chicken tagine that is fragrant with the addition of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and smoked paprika. Rosa brings the heavy casserole to the table and over the couscous that has cooked beautifully, we sit down and eat a most delicious meal. The meat is so tender, it is falling off the bone. There are apricots to lend sweetness. Overall, it is a meal to remember—I can still recall the amazing Boeuf Bourguignon that Rosa had conjured up, eight years ago, when I was last at her home one Mother’s Day. She is a superb chef and we do justice to her cooking.

A little later, after Matt helps clear things up and stack them in the dishwasher, we call it a night. I am sleepy again and at 9.30pm, I say thanks and goodnight and leave to get settled in my room. I shall pack my little back pack tomorrow. For the moment, I am ready to sleep. It will be the last night I will pass in the UK and in a bed different from my own…

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

 

 

Another Change of Household: in Essex Now!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Oxford-Essex

I had my last breakfast with Susan (toast with Tony’s orange marmalade, Lurpak butter and decaff coffee) while overlooking the meadow outside her kitchen—almost completely shrouded by thick swirls of fog on this chilly morning. It is not a great day to be traveling but I will spend most of it in a coach anyway.

Departure from Oxford:

At 8. 15 am, I say goodbye and thanks to my generous friends, Sue and Tony, and dragging my backpack behind me, I set off for the bus stop that will take me to The High for my 9. 15 am coach to Stanstead Airport where my friend Rosa will pick me up and drive me the ten minutes over to her home in Essex. I am deeply sorry to leave my friends and the Oxford I so adore behind me and as I nurse these thoughts, Tony comes running after me with my black jacket—which, somehow, I have left behind on my bed! Thankfully, I was still only a few meters away from their front door.

I had decided to take the bus from Abingdon Road, but since I am so early, I walk instead to the Tesco Express opposite Christ Church College to buy some chocolates for my friends’ Rosa and Matt’s two little boys. I have small wooden toys for them from India, but I know that the way to every little kid’s heart is through a box of chocolates. I pick up Celebrations and Quality Street from Tesco and armed with my goodies, I walk to the High Street. Visibility is very poor and Old Tom Tower has all but disappeared. It is also dreadfully cold—there is the foggy wet dampness that seems to penetrate every layer you are wearing and settle in your bones. Ugggh!

At the coach stop, I make conversation with a man from Bombay who is waiting for the coach to London where he works—yes, he lives in Oxford, he says, and does the commute three times a week. He is from Juhu and, within seconds, we feel like old friends. He hops in when his coach arrives and, five minutes later, I follow suit when mine trundles along. Meanwhile, I have read tourist signposts that inform me that I am standing between two of the oldest coffee shops in Oxford—the Queens Lane Coffee House where I have often sipped coffee and wolfed down scones slathered with clotted cream and strawberry jam and, across the road, The Grand Café—where I have never been! On its rather grand shop windows, it advertises Afternoon Tea all day!!! How come I have missed this place? It is something to do for when I am next in the city of dreaming spires—that truly look as if they are well-tucked away in Dreamland today since it is so foggy. That, and Oli’s Thai, the renowned Thai place on Magdalen Road in Cowley. One must always leave behind something to be done the next time round. And I hope there will be many next times yet…

On the Coach to Essex:

It is a long journey to Stanstead from Oxford. We go through Headington and make a stops at High Wycombe, Hemel Hempstead, Luton (airport), Hatfield and finally Stanstead. The early part of the ride is uncomfortably chilly but the driver assures me that the heating is on—it just takes long to heat up a huge coach when there are only five persons on board.

When I arrive at Stanstead, I go through the airport and climb up one level to the Arrivals area where Rosa is supposed to pick me up. I call her to tell her that I have reached and then wait for her in the freezing cold. I am not looking forward to getting home to Southport for this one reason—the dead of winter is not the best time for a homecoming on the East Atlantic coast! Still…I am sure that the warmth of the welcome I will receive will compensate for the weather.

Rosa did arrive about ten minutes later and we did drive to her place—only ten minutes away. Since she has moved to this place only two years ago, I am coming here for the first time. It is one of those brand-new estate developments similar to America’s gated communities with cookie-cutter homes, small patches of personal back gardens and attached garages. Rosa’s previous home in Bishop’s Storford (where we will spend tomorrow) was smaller. I had stayed there before she had her two sons during her work stint with Matt, her husband, in Singapore. The expanded family necessitated a larger home—hence this lovely one. As soon as I enter, I am grateful for the warmth of a cozy living room and attached kitchen with huge dining table. Rosa can only stay with me ten minutes as she has an appointment to keep at her boys’ school where she does Reading as a volunteer parent who happens to work from home. She warms up a pot of roast chicken soup for me and I eat it with a buttered slice of tiger bread—tiger bread is peculiar to Britain and involves a brown checkered crusted top. She leaves me with the remote, tells me she will be back in about an hour and a half and goes.

Getting to Know My Littlest Hosts:

I spend most of the afternoon watching TV (one of the last episodes of As Time Goes By is on Gold, the channel I had sorely missed when I lived in London). Just fifteen minutes before she can arrive with the boys, sleep insistently washes over me and I simply must go and take a nap. I awake at 4.00 pm and spend the next hour getting to know the delightful Jacob and Daniel who are at lovely ages—five and three. Rosa enjoys playing with them: mini table tennis, some kind of game on the floor with what appear to be jigsaw puzzle bits. They run around like lightning between their two rooms while showing off their toys to ‘Aunty Rochelle’. I am enchanted by how cute, lively, energetic and well-behaved they are.

An hour later, after Rosa brews me a cup of lemony tea, the boys are served their ‘tea’—which is actually their dinner: ham and cheese omelettes with boiled sweet corn, bread and butter. There is my chocolate to follow for dessert—for they have been told, as my mother and Rosa’s mother had once told us: No chocolate until you finish everything on your plate. They are good and obedient eaters. They do not leave the table, once seated. There is no fighting, no fussing, no shoving or pushing. I am amazed by the discipline of kids still under six years old. When they have finished, they start the complicated process of choosing what they term ‘grown-up chocolate’, i.e. chocolate that isn’t Smarties! It is pure fun watching them taste each caramel or coconut center and decide whether or not they like it (they mostly don’t…so Rosa ends up eating a good half dozen!)

They are allowed an hour of telly because Aunty Rochelle is staying with them. This allows Rosa and me to chat about all sorts of things. There is so much to catch up on as we have not seen each other for about eight years! We have had email contact, of course, but that is hardly enough. Then, Rosa excuses herself to start the ‘evening routine’—baths, a story, bedtime. I watch Only Fools and Horses on Gold—it is hilarious! But when she returns, we get to the kitchen to eat our own dinner. Matt, a high school teacher of Physics, is detained as it happens to be parent-teacher night. We miss him, but Rosa puts out almost an entire deli of cold foods and salad: plates of cold cuts (salami and prosciutto), smoked salmon, babaganoush, taramasalata, crackers of every sort, Double Gloucestershire cheese and Camembert, a bag of salad leaves and a case of cherry tomatoes. There is so much to nibble on with the tiger bread. When we have had our fill, Matt arrives and join us in a bit of open sandwich with smoked salmon. He also makes himself a sandwich for the next day as we chat nineteen to the dozen and Rosa takes a lateish work conference call. I am absolutely charmed by the company of my friends and truly delighted to be with them again.

About 10. 15 pm, however, we decide to call it a day. I excuse myself after giving a hand clearing and putting food away and I go up to my pretty room where I snuggle into bed after brushing and flossing my teeth in the upstairs bathroom.

It has been a grand day and I feel deeply happy that I am ending my days in the UK in such a serene, peaceful and very leisurely sort of way.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

 

Highlight of a Sabbatical–Leading a Seminar at St. Antony’s College, Oxford

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Oxford

Oxford is forlorn in the winter—although the sun did come out today to gild the honey-toned Cotswold stone colleges with golden hues. But this cosmetic facelift did little to cheer the town up. When greyed tree silhouettes are deprived of leafy foliage, when ice encrusts the banks of the Thames, when humanity is stripped off the aged cobbled streets, the town wears a distinctly different look. Still, I refused to let winter get the better of me. It was a red-letter day for me and I felt extraordinarily privileged to arrive in the city as a guest lecturer who would lead a graduate seminar. It is for moments like these that one lives the academic life…Truly.

I awoke to have breakfast with Sue—more toast with butter, marmalade and coffee. A shower, a more formal outfit for my lecture chosen, I sat down to review my notes and prepare for my lecture. But having awoken at 4.00 am, I was nodding off at 9.30 am and succumbed to the luxury of a morning’s nap—I must have dozed for about half an hour but I awoke and got my second wind. Half an hour later, I was ready to Ieave and I took the Thames Path again.

Visiting Exeter and St. Anne’s Colleges:

Having had a slow start (I left the house only at 11. 10 am), I meandered along slowly, with nothing really important to do except meet the Director of the Asian Studies Center, Faisal Devji, at 1.00 pm at St. Antony’s College for lunch, followed by my lecture. So, I popped into the Oxfam thrift shop on Broad Street and bought another DVD (About Time), then decided that since I could not possibly leave Oxford without going into Exeter College, I wandered in there. Students were hurrying to a lecture in the Saskatchewan Lecture Hall underground, where I had once lectured during a Summer School Program. Before I reached there, however, I decided to go upstairs to my former room in the Margary Quadrangle that I was re-visiting after at least 30 years. It was open—yes! Fancy new security codes make it impossible for visitors to wander around usually, but I knew my way around easily, of course. I found my former room, now occupied by someone else and I found the bathroom I had used with its old-fashioned bathtubs and no showers. All has changed, needless to say. There is modern plumbing now which belies the Gothic façade of the main quad—although the Margary Quad dates from the early 1960s. I used the facilities, took a few pictures and moved on. I had the distinct feeling that I will not pass through these stairs again. The feeling is sobering.

I hurry off then for the lecture to see if I can catch a part of it. The lecture hall is packed and there are a few students standing at the back. I join them and discover immediately that the speaker is Jeri Johnson, the American professor or American Lit. at Exeter who had been my friend Firdaus’ Tutor so many moons ago while we were both at Oxford. She is lecturing on the role of the US government on modern literature. I stay for a little while, thrilled, once again, to be able to listen to a lecture in my own alma mater. I then do some more wandering—to the Undercroft Bar where I had downed many a glass of wine with my buddies many years ago. I am unable to enter the chapel (which is closed) or the Dining Hall (ditto). However, I am delighted at my flying visit to Exeter (which also looks very different in the winter gloom) and make my way back to The Broad.

I contemplate popping into the Ashmolean Museum, but I have little time for it. I decide to walk instead towards St. Antony’s College. I might be a mite early but I can survey Zaha Hadid’s handiwork on the new Library. Just next door to St. Antony’s is St. Anne’s College where I had been admitted to do my Masters’ in Eng. Lit. many decades ago. I had not taken my place as the offer came without a scholarship. Since I had never actually been into St. Anne’s, I decided to poke around. And whom should I run into (and what are the odds of such a thing happening?) but David Longrigg, my former landlord in North Oxford, and good friend. Of course, we chatted for a long while as I inquired after his lovely wife, Elizabeth, who had been a superb landlady. David thought I was “very brave” to lead a seminar at an Oxford college! He was admiring the new building at St. Anne’s that had been beneath scaffolding for a long time. He told me to make sure I returned at night when the lights are on and the books in the new library building are illuminated. I promised him I would.

Once I said goodbye to David, I entered St. Anne’s and had a poke around. I did not realize that behind its modern façade there are Victorian brick buildings that provide an antiquarian touch to the lovely landscaped lawns. It is a very peaceful campus—small, but very appealing. Had my life taken a different turn, perhaps this college would have had huge significance for me, I could not help thinking.

Lunch at St. Antony’s:

Five minutes later, with the clock’s hands nearing 1.00 pm, I was at the Porter’s Lodge at St. Antony’s College and just a few minutes later, I was meeting Faisal Devji with whom I had an appointment for lunch. He turned out to be the nicest person and within ten minutes of our meeting, I realized that we knew so many people in common in Bombay. Almost everyone I asked about were folks he knew personally. It was amazing. We chatted easily in the Buttery over a steak lunch with onion rings and a cauliflower gratin—a larger lunch than I really ought to have eaten before my talk. Upstairs, we had coffee—a decaff cappuccino for me and a tea for him and we continued to chat amiably. There was so much to say, it was amazing.

Leading a Seminar at St. Antony’s College:

And then it was 2.00 pm and we arrived at the classroom where my Powerpoint presentation had been set up. There were several people already in the room—many grad students plus my friends and in the varied ages of the folks there, I knew we’d have a very lively discussion. I was introduced by Faisal and I began. It was exhilarating, to say the least. To be back in an institution in which I had been elected to the position of Senior Associate Member and where I was being provided the opportunity to talk about my coming book. As expected, there were many questions that followed and many comments and experiences that were shared with me as I listened to the impact my research had on those present. It is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life—to be able to take my findings out to so many intellectuals in some of the most august institutions in Europe Truly, this talk was for me the most privileged culmination of my non-teaching semester in the UK. It provided an afternoon I would always remember with the deepest pride.

Tea and biscuits followed in the hall outside where I had the chance to speak to several more people who came up with questions and comments. I took a few photos with my friends Susan, Steve and Rae who were also present and with Faisal himself who had been a splendid host.

Exploring the Zaha Hadid Library:

Just before we said thanks and goodbye to Faisal and to the premises of the college, we decided to take a closer look at the Library wing designed by the late architect who was robbed off her life in her prime. She has left her mark on many major international buildings and St. Antony’s is privileged to carry her work—possibly the last major commission she took on before her untimely death. We were granted permission to enter the Tube-Funnel like industrial-looking passage she created as part of the Library’s Reading Room. There was complete silence as many students were at work. Indeed, it was fun to wander around, take pictures and size up the strangeness of her vision.

Off to Summertown:

One of the things I wanted to do while in Oxford this time was a stroll around Summertown, the North Oxford hamlet that has some fashionable shops. I walked past one of my favorite Oxford churches on the Woodstock Road to get through the North Parks Parade with its cute shops and to arrive at the Banbury Road from where I took a bus to Summertown. I caught some of the shops just before they closed for the day and from the Oxfam there, I bought a lovely Victorian-looking warm fleece hat that reminds me of Eliza Doolittle in her flower selling mode! It was a very long walk back from Summertown to Grandpont—indeed it took me about 1 hour and 40 minutes, but I did stop for an ice-cream sundae (which provided a chance for a sit-down) at the ice-cream parlor just opposite Tom Tower at Christ Church College.

Dinner with Sue, Tony and Steve:

Half an hour later, I was back home at Sue and Tony’s place and getting ready for dinner. Tony’s son, Steve, was expected for dinner and Tony was hard at work conjuring a venison pie based on a stew he had created earlier. Blanketed by puff pastry, it made a very handsome dinner indeed, served with potatoes and cabbage. I had a shandy to wash it all down and in Steve’s company, we had a very interesting chat. It was a deep pleasure to meet Steve and it was simply wonderful to be treated to all these amazing meals by Sue and Tony—the stew was perfect comfort food on a chilly winter’s evening. I had a small bit of Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake to finish off my meal and just after I had the last mouthful, sleep just washed over me. I excused myself and returned to my room to start packing for my departure to Essex tomorrow.

An hour later, it was 9.30 pm and having my backpack and other belongings all ready, I crept into bed as chatter and laughter from the dining room still continued. I was bushed after what had been a really eventful day for me and in minutes, I was fast asleep.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Afloat in Abingdon in Oxfordshire

Monday, January 23, 2017

Oxford and Abingdon

I am awake early, I do some reading in bed on my smart phone and then I fall asleep again. When I awake, it is about 7. 30 and my friends have already eaten breakfast. I wash and shower and settle down to a coffee and two slices of toast with Tony’s excellent homemade orange marmalade and some Lurpak butter. I finish off with grapes. It is amazing to me how everyone in the Western world eats fruit with breakfast. My family members in India have only recently caught up with the practice, but I have still to adopt it fully.

The cleaning lady, Leonardo, comes in to do. I meet her briefly, then get dressed and leave for the City Center. I take the Thames Path that I so love and upon which I had done a lot of wild blackberry plucking and eating in the late summer. Now the canes, while still green and leafy, are stripped off their berries. It is freezing and there is more than just a touch of frost everywhere I turn. I am layered more thickly than a Vidalia onion with a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, a cashmere cardigan, a fleece hoodie, a long down coat. Plus I have hat, gloves, pantyhose and socks and scarf. I am cozy as I stride along towards Carfax. I do pop into Marks to take a look at shoes—I find a pair that I’d like to buy…perhaps in Essex, as I do not wish to lug it around. In L’Occitaine, I find one of my favorite perfumes in the world, Pivoine Flora (Peony) in eau de parfum format on sale! Buying it is a no-brainer as I have looked for this fragrance on sale for the longest time and never found it! With a bottle in a smart bag, I leave.

I then walk briskly along the Banbury Road towards the Museum of Natural History which opens at 10.00 am. My aim is to potter around at the back in the Pitt Rivers Museum—but, wouldn’t you just know it? On Mondays, it opens at 12.00! I am disappointed but spend time at the glass cases that talk about Charles Ludwig Dodgson (Lewis Carol) who pulled the Alice in Wonderland stories out of his mind while boating on the Cherwell with Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, where he taught Math(s). Next door, is a case with information about the Dodo that became extinct in the late 19th century from being over-hunted. Lewis Carol loved the bird because a stammer caused him to say his own last name as Do-Do-Dodgson! Hence, he included it into his stories! How charming to be able to laugh at yourself!

There is a lot to fascinate in the Museum of Natural History—from the stone carved sculpture of famous naturalists (Linneaus, Darwin, etc.) to cases filled with birds and animals and, of course, the towering dinosaur skeletons. The place was heaving with school kids out on field trips with their teachers. A famous early episode of Lewis that involved screaming school kids was shot in this space and I recalled it vividly as I surveyed the towering glass and iron ceiling. I adore these British Victorian museum buildings—the outside of them remind me of Crawford Market in Bombay while the inside is just stunning. Sadly, after I swallowed my disappointment at not being able to get into the Pitt Rivers Collection, I left to brave the cold once again.

Meeting Prof/Rev Judith Brown at Brasenose College:

I had an 11. 45 am meeting with Prof. Judith Brown, formerly of Balliol College, who, after her retirement as an Oxford don has taken the part-time position of College Chaplain at Brasenose (Brays-Nose) College as she is also an ordained Anglican minister! Thirty years ago, while still a newbie in the USA, I had reviewed her book Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope for India Abroad. Since then, she has gone on to publish extensively on South Asian History and her latest work actually looks at the South Asian Diaspora in Britain. Luckily for me, her study did not include Britain’s Anglo-Indians—which is the lacuna that my coming book will fill. Unfortunately, a work commitment does not permit her to attend my talk tomorrow at St. Antony’s College but she was eager to discuss my findings with me.

I pass through the Clarendon Building, into the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library and arrive at Radcliff Square where I greet the Radcliff Camera in which I had spent ecstatic hours researching in the late summer, as if it were an old friend. Brasenose College adjoins Exeter, my own college, and I find its entrance easily. We were supposed to meet at the Porter’s Lodge and she is there right on the dot. In a few minutes, after we have met, she leads me through two quadrangles and up a flight of antiquated stairs to her room—again, the setting is reminiscent for me of the Morse and Lewis series!!! I am such a fan, aren’t it?

It is a lovely freewheeling chat as we discuss her work, my work, her findings and mine. I discover that she was born in India (in Meerut) and lived there till the age of two and a half as her missionary father worked there. This explains for me, both her academic interest in the Indian sub-continent and her ecclesiastical calling. She is warm, funny, unassuming, everything an iconic Oxford academic is usually not! I am charmed. Her room is huge, filled with cozy sofas, books on bookshelves and the inevitable tea and coffee paraphernalia. But our chatter goes on longer than I expected and before I know it, it is 12. 45. I was supposed to meet Sue for lunch at 12. 30 at Pizza Express in the Covered Market. I must dash.

Pizza Lunch with Sue:

We say hasty goodbyes and I run along The High, for Judith opens a wooden door for me that leads me directly to the entrance to the Covered Market. I find the entrance to Pizza Express in a medieval courtyard dating from the 12th century at the back of the market and when I get there, I find Sue seated at a table. We order our pizzas—a Veneziana for her, a Pianta for me—mine is topped with baby rocket (arugula) which I adore. They are large and very hearty and we eat well and when we are done, Sue takes me to the back to show me the Painted Room (part of what used to be The Crown Tavern) which consists of medieval wall frescoes that were discovered quite by chance during renovations. Care has been taken now to preserve them behind flexiglass panels—they present mythological creatures, fruit and flowers and vines, all remarkably distinct despite the passage of centuries.

Off to Abingdon:          

Ever since her official retirement, a few years ago, my friend Sue has worked with a social service organization in Abingdon called St. Ethelwold’s House. She is keen to introduce me to it and I am keen to discover it and her special calling. We get on the bus to Abingdon at St. Aldates and in 20 minutes, along a lovely wintry and somewhat foggy highway, we arrive at the pretty town. Once we alight from the bus, we pass the medieval County Hall (which now houses a museum that is closed on Mondays and from where buns are thrown to the waiting public downstairs on days of national significance such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in a long and inexplicable Oxfordshire tradition). We head on to a charming, curved street that the architect Sir Nicholas Pevsner called one of the most beautiful streets in England. And I could see why. There are low, row cottages on both sides of a cobbled street with a charming church at the end. The vista is strikingly rural England and I am delighted.

Discovering St. Ethelwold’s House:

On a bank of the River Thames that offers pretty views of Abingdon Bridge sits a delightful property that was acquired by a philanthropist called Dorothea Pickering who bequeathed it for the spiritual well-being of the community. And so it was that we explored a Tudor house with exposed timbered sides, low roof, thick white stucco walls and tiny glass windows to discover what is today a B and B run mainly by volunteers to keep the establishment going and to enable part of it to be used for the greater good of humanity. Today, the place houses two Syrian refugees and attempts to rehabilitate them by offering lessons in English, training for the job market, etc. There are community rooms and Sanctuary spaces for meditation, yoga classes offered all week round, counsellors available on call and retired attorneys who provide pro bono services. The atmosphere is quiet and serene and tucked around a lovely garden that winds it way down to the river bank where two cottages are available for hire, for reflection and meditation and for a spot of quiet knitting. Birds whistled plaintively in the bare trees when I was there and as Sue gave me the grand tour, I was enchanted by it all. I met one of the Syrian residents briefly as well as his counsellor in the midst of a session. It was all very old-fashioned and very uplifting and I was so glad Sue took me along to show me the place in which she spends several days a week doing all sorts of work that keeps places like these running in these days of dreadfully high heating and other bills.

More Exploration of Abingdon:

By the end of the quick hour during which Sue whizzed me through a guided tour, we saw 12th century Alms Houses with a most unique wooden cloister attached to an old Cotswold stone church. Outside, a river walk offered views of Abingdon Bridge and the tow path across where a dog walker was exercising her pooch. Ducks flew quackingly overhead and others left trails in the river. We walked towards the ruins of an abbey in which Aethelwold was the abbot in the 9th century. Here too the gardens, despite wearing winter gloom, had sprouted the first primroses of the year in a soft lemony hue. The arch that connects the church with the pastoral houses next door reminded me of Winchester Cathedral. Along another side street, we found thrift shops from where I bought yet another DVD—In the Café starring Kelly McDonald and Bill Nighy. And then at Oxfam, where I could have spent the next two hours because there was simply tons to be seen, I found an amazing vintage English tea set by Foley (part of the Shelley Pottery Factory that closed down in the 1960s). Highly collectible today, I felt sorely tempted to pick it up. Only the fact of becoming overweight and wondering how I could transport something so delicate stopped me from buying it right away. Finally, it was Sue who dragged me away with the plea that we had to leave as she had dinner to organize.

Back on the bus to Oxford, we hopped off at Grandpont, walked through Hincksey Park and reached home. A quick cup of tea later, I was pleading jetlag and the need for a nap which my hosts agreed would be a good idea as we had guests expected for a sit-down dinner later in the evening. I retreated to my room, checked email and then fell off to sleep, to awake refreshed and ready to face new friends.

Sit-Down Dinner With Friends:

Sue and Tony had invited their friends Steve and Rae to have dinner with us. The two of them will be attending my talk at St. Antony’s College tomorrow and they thought it would be a good idea to meet informally before the lecture. They arrived exactly at 7.00 pm and over a glass of red wine and Sue’s starter of avocados and olives on buttered toast, we then adjourned to the dining table. Since one of them is vegan, Sue had a menu planned along vegetarian lines: we had Aubergine Parmesan made from scratch with homemade tomato sauce and aubergines grown on their allotment. It was delicious. There was garlic baguette also to go around. The dish was very tasty and very hearty indeed—made fragrant by the liberal use of crumbled basil. For dessert, Sue made a Chocolate Almond Torte (gluten-free) served with home grown stewed blackcurrants and vanilla ice-cream—which was simply lovely. We did not have a moment’s silence for at least two hours as we discovered so much about Steve’s own Anglo-Indian background, Rae’s experiences in Belfast from which she had just returned and, of course, the dire possibilities of the Truummphhhff administration got a lot of air time! We were bristling with anger, indignation and wonder—who could possibly vote for such a man??? they wondered.

It was about 9.00 pm when the party broke up as Steve and Rae had to go out into the freezing night to find their car and get home. Sue and Tony had worked hard together to put forth a meal that was memorable in company that was compatible and stimulating. I left them to clear and wash up as they know the drill in their own kitchen better than I do. Not long afterwards, I was snug in bed, ready to call it a night.

I have a stressful day ahead—what with my talk at St. Antony’s…in many ways, the culmination of a host of dreams and a fitting end to what has been an incredible Sabbatical period for me. So I fell asleep with a prayer on my lips.

Until tomorrow…cheerio.

Being an Oxonian Again!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

London-Oxford

I awake at the unearthly hour of 5.00 am—still jetlagged and still fighting Bombay-time in my London hostel. By 6.00 am, I get out of bed and get on with my day. I gather up my stuff quietly, creep to the adjoining toilet and bathroom. Back in my room, with the aid of a night light attached to my bunk, I finish packing, dressing and dragging my backpack to the lift.

Brekkie at the Youth Hostel:

I would have liked to catch the 8.00 am Communion service at the Church of All Souls, Langham (referred to at the BBC Church), but it is a longer hike from my hostel than I had thought. Instead, I decide to get downstairs to the dining room and order the Breakfast Buffet—an All You Can Eat Continental spread for 4.99 pounds. I do not realize what great value it is for money until I am presented with a tray with a croissant on it, and asked for my choice of yoghurt—I opt for peach. At the bar, there is juice, tea, coffee, milk (hot and cold), a selection for cereals (I go for the muesli), black and white bread for toast, every possible kind of spread and preserve plus fresh fruit. I eat like a queen and fortify myself up well for the day ahead for I have no idea when my next meal will be. At 9.45 am, I settle my bill, return my key card to Reception and leave. It is probably the last time I will ever stay in a youth hostel and I am feeling a tad sorry about it for I have had wonderful solo adventures in them in cities around the world.

We have decided that I will meet my friend Roz at 10.15am outside Notting Hill Gate Tube station and, to my great good luck, after I lug my backpack to Marylebon Road, a few short blocks away, I discover at the bus stop that instead of taking the Tube from Great Portland Road and changing three trains to get there, I need merely take one bus there directly. Hallelujah!

The bus arrives within five minutes and I am at my destination in about twenty. Roz is already parked close by and we have a reunion as she stashes my backpack in the trunk of her car and we move on. It is possibly the shortest journey I have ever had to Oxford—partly because, on a Sunday morning, the city is still asleep, traffic is non-existent and we are gabbing away non-stop. Time flies and it is only when we arrive at St. Clements, that I realize how quickly we have reached. It is our intention to eat a Thai lunch at Oli’s Thai which is extolled as one of the finest Thai restaurants in the country, but, of course, it is not open on a Sunday. Perhaps tomorrow, I think…

Parking and a Coffee at the Museum of Modern Art:

Roz finds parking on the High Street and we stride along to Marks and Spenser because my friend Sue, in whose home in Oxford I shall be staying, recommended that we visit the Museum of Modern Art (that neither one of us has seen) which is down a flight of stairs behind the store. We find it in a jiffy and settle down with coffee and hot chocolate in the adjoining cafe—although I am still stuffed with my bulging breakfast. More chatter, more catching up to do, more things to chinwag about. Then, reluctantly, we push ourselves towards the exhibits.

There is a special by Lubaina Himid, a Muslim Tanzanian-British, post-Colonial artist whose mixed media work (paintings, collage, sculpture, installation, painted pottery) are a telling commentary on colonial exploitation of Africa. It is an attempt to expose the brutality of slavery and to reclaim the place of the native black African in historical narrative especially around the issue of the world china trade—which I find vastly interesting.

My contemplation of her work is interrupted by news from my brother Roger in Connecticut that my brother Russel is unwell in Bombay. I make calls to my Dad, get to grips with the situation and decide to call him again in an hour. We are getting out of the art gallery through M and S when whom should we run into but my friend Sue, with whom I shall be spending the next three nights! I make introductions but we soon move on and get back to the car. Roz is ready for some lunch and I suggest one of my favorite places near Oxford, The Trout at Wolvercote. She is game…and we are off.

Lunch at The Trout:

Roz drives her car expertly out of Oxford’s complex one-way road system and we are on the Woodstock Road headed for Wolvercote. Regular readers of this blog will know that it is a favorite place of mine—a pub that was favored by Morse and Lewis and which has grown from a small country drinking hole to a somewhat posh gastropub with posh food to match. Over the last thirty odd years, I have spent many a happy hour in quiet contemplation by its weir on the stone terrace at the back, overlooking the river Isis—either alone or in company.

On this Sunday afternoon, it is hopping. We manage to find a table for two, despite having no reservations, and sit down to a lovely luncheon in a super cozy space with exposed black beams, low-slung ceiling and Ingernook fireplaces that make it toasty. Roz goes for a vegetable tart with goat cheese which is absolutely delicious and although I am still stuffed, I go for the Fig and Dolcelatto Nut Roast which is really quite nice. Roz has a glass of red wine, I have the pear cider (my first time, if you can believe it, having it in the UK on this visit), but by the time we get to our last mouthfuls, we are bursting and pass on dessert—more’s the pity because they looked fabulous.

Getting Dropped Off at Grandpont:

Roz drives me back to Sue and Tony’s, as she has plans to meet her son and his family in Jericho. It is a roundabout journey because the pedestrian plaza of Cornmarket makes a detour necessary. Carfax in Oxford is busy on a Sunday afternoon, but nowhere near as crowded as it is in the summer. Again, a quick Hi and Bye to Sue and Tony and she is on her way by 4.00 pm

Dinner with Dear Friends:

With the evening free to ourselves, I find my room, make myself at home and spend the evening catching up with my friends. There is a distinct sense of deja-vu all over again as I survey the house in which I had spent two absolutely heavenly weeks in September while they were in Crete. They settle me down with a cup of tea and before long, it is time for dinner. Sue and Tony work together to produce delicious, nourishing meals, most of which are created from the produce they grow on their allotment. This evening it is a marvelous Leek, Walnut and Blue Cheese Tart complete with pastry, Tony has made and rolled himself into a deep tart dish. We eat it with peas and new boiled potatoes and there is a Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake from M and S for pudding.

There is so much to talk about—mainly about the new presidency of Truummmphhhh! My friends are naturalists and activists and have joined the rest of the world in protesting against his obnoxious policies. On Saturday (yesterday), during the Womens’ March, they stood with banners on Abingdon Bridge that read, ‘Build Bridges, Not Walls’. They are fearful about what lies ahead, not just for America but the world.

But, much as I enjoy our chatter, by 9.00 pm, jetlag catches up with me again and I am yawning and losing it. I excuse myself as they clear up and I get ready for bed. It has been another wonderful day spent in the company of fond English friends in one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world. What was not to love?

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

…………

Brekkie at The Wolseley, Shopping, Buried Child at the West End.

London Diary—Jan 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Accomplishing London To-Do List! And Packing (Yet Again!) Plus Ed Harris at the West End.

Terribly jetlagged, I awake in a 6-bedded dorm in the London youth hostel on Bolsover Street at 3. 30 am. I manage some more shut eye, then awake at 5. 30 am. It is eventually 7.00 am when I drag myself out of bed quietly so as not to awake my sleeping roomies. It is time for a wash, a shower and a tick of another item off my To-Do List—Brekkie at the Wolseley Hotel.

Posh Full English Brekkie in a London Institution:

I find my way to the bus stop on New Cavendish Street, realizing that I could not have chosen a better location for 2 nights’ accommodation in London. My office at NYU, where my cases are stacked, is only a hop, skip and jump away. The YHA is homely, clean, relatively quiet, safe and central—oh and very reasonably priced. In the dead of winter, it is still packed solid. Fifty percent of my roomies are women my age or over! I feel right at home. It is the perfect solution for the solo traveler. I contemplate the sagacity of my decision to stay here as I await my bus in the dead quiet of a Saturday morning while it is still semi-dark. There are a couple of other people waiting with me—I feel the sense of safety in numbers. In five minutes, a 453 trundles along and on the top deck, front and center, as is my wont, I am transported along the still gorgeously illuminated shopping strips of Regent and Oxford Streets, to be put down at Piccadilly Circus.

Walking along this iconic road, I am struck by the fact that I have it all to myself. I pass many familiar landmarks—Waterstones, the bookstore. Fortnum and Mason, purveyors of fine foods. Across the Road, Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Art. Fancy shops selling fancier goods—Maria Novella perfumes from Florence, fine cashmere from Scotland, Maille mustards in posh packaging. I get to the Wolseley Hotel, which every guidebook has extolled as the best value in the city for a full English breakfast or Afternoon Tea. The latter I have tried already—a few years ago with my friend Shahnaz and her daughter Azra. It is time to find out what the fuss is about re. Brekkie. But first, I peruse the menu pinned to glass cases outside. It is value for money at 18 pounds for the works: eggs any which way, bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans. But just to be sure I am making the right choice, I pop into the Ritz next door. I would like to find out what they offer for brekkie and at what price. I walk through the ritzy pink and green lobby, past Reception and the utterly grand Palm Court (where Llew and I once were treated to Afternoon Tea by a family friend) and get to the back Dining Hall where I am handed a menu. Price for the Full English is an eye-popping 39 pounds. No contest. I will return to the Wolseley and pig out.

I am seated courteously by a lovely hostess. I do not have a reservation, but I am early enough in the day to snag a table for two which I might keep for an hour and a half. It is enough for me (as I have a full day ahead and much to accomplish). The waitress wants to know if I would like a newspaper. Yes please, I say. Which one? she asks. How about The Times? I respond. A copy is promptly placed before me and, had I already eaten, I’d have had instant indigestion. There is a full frontal photograph of La Famille Trummmmmphhh! I sit down, place my order and take in the full printed show. As a mark of protest (on a day when millions of women would be marching in protest against the new President’s declared policies), I decide not to read a word about his inauguration (just as I had refused to watch any of it on TV, the previous day, as I wished to hit him where it hurts—in the ratings!). I move towards the Op Ed columns and read what British journos have to say about the tamasha!

Soon enough, my brekkie arrives and I give myself wholly to the delights of the English table. My only disappointment is to find streaky (American-style) bacon on my plate where I adore the English back bacon which is made from Pork Tenderloin. Still, I have no choice—so gobble it all up, I do, with gusto. I have a decaff cappuccino to sip in-between mouthfuls and I am a happy camper, for I have fueled myself up well for a day in which I will probably eat very little else. The black pudding, by the way, is creamy and delicious. I was asked if I’d like toast and I had said yes—I got a slice of brown and a slice of white (I did not realize that I had to pay more for it—I thought it was part of my brekkie platter). No matter. I decided to pack it up and take it home for a very late lunch or early supper. In the Wolseley Hotel, I am surrounded by beautiful people. When a very ostentatiously dressed woman sits beside me, peroxided to the nines, wearing dangling sparkly jewelry at 8.00 am, I wonder if she is a cross-dresser. All eyes turn to her as she makes her dramatic entry and waiters pause in homage to kiss her on both cheeks and call her ‘Darling’. I am enthralled. It turns out she is not Ru Paul—just another ‘regular’ apparently at the hotel.

Off to Trafalgar Square for Theater Ticket:

It is about 9.40 when I pay my bill and leave. Piccadilly is slowly coming to life but F&M is still closed (so I have no opportunity to find out if there are any leftovers from their post-Xmas sale). I walk towards Haymarket and find my way to Trafalgar Square. London is so different when it is stripped off humanity. Only the architecture grabs your eye at this time of day—undisguised, as it were. Landseer’s Lions at the Nelson Column are slowly roaring to life as traffic joins them in a slow crescendo. I get to the Trafalgar Studios at 9.55 and chat with a couple of Americans from Minnesota who have come to see their compatriots (Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in Pulitzer-Prize winning Sam Shephard’s masterpiece). I have heard a lot of good things about this play (Buried Child) and decide to see if I can get a single ticket for the evening show. Five minutes later, I am the proud possessor of one such gem (for 35 pounds). I have a brilliant seat, three rows from the front. No doubt I shall see some spit fly!

I walk along Whitehall, past the Horse Guards, who have emerged to begin their duty for the day—those must be the most photographed horses in the world. My bus comes along and I take it to Tottenham Court Road and at exactly 10.45, I enter NYU and get straight to work.

Packing—Again–and Weighing Suitcases—Again! (And Hopefully for the Last Time!):

The premises are closed today except for workmen and decorators who are busy in the lobby. Dave, the Porter, who was expecting me, lets me in. I drag my cases from the Porter’s Room to the Ground Floor Student Lounge, pull out my weighing scale, and begin the process of getting everything out (the better to decide what to discard and what to take back home). I have given myself two hours to accomplish this daunting task. I throw away a pair of black patent leather shoes that have seen better days and that were replaced by a new pair I’d bought just before Christmas from Next on Oxford Street. I put aside items I can give away as gifts. I wade through masses of sheets of paper and discard about 60% of them. I give away two books. I have simply no weight allowance for them. After I rearrange my stuff, I weigh each case carefully. I can put a pound more in one of them and five pounds more in the other before I reach full permitted capacity. There will be room for some food goodies—favorite biscuits, cakes, and my stock of underwear for the year from M&S. I will have to forego bottles of marmalade and chocolates for American Airlines is stringent and I have no desire to pay excess baggage charges. Oh well! At least I had enjoyed them fully while I lived in the country.

Time to Go Shopping:

I find out that Dave will remain at his post till 4.00 pm. This leaves me about 3 hours to get to Oxford Street to the M&S to tackle my To-Buy List. I take the Tube from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch, walk to the department store, pluck the items off the shelve in the Food Hall (there is an offer on the bikkies—oh joy!—wish I could take 6 packets). In the Ladies Lingerie section, I find exactly what I need quite easily. Armed with my buys, I march to the cashier. Outside, on the street, I made a quick dash into Selfridges for samples of Byredo Pulp perfume—but they have run out. They direct me instead to Liberty’s which is a 15 minute walk away. I have the time—but only just! I hussle past determined shoppers, get to Oxford Circus and take the back street towards Carnaby Street and enter the lovely Tudor structure that is Liberty’s of London.  It is, thankfully, not a wild good chase. I am smilingly handed my samples. I want to see if I will like the fragrance enough after a few weeks before I splurge on a whole bottle myself. Silk scarves and classic perfume—they are my long-enduring weaknesses!

There is little time to linger. I have no intention of lugging my purchases with me to Oxford and Essex—I simply must pack them in my suitcases and then lock them safely away until I am ready to leave London this coming Friday for home. Off to the Tube station I race for one stop and a brisk walk back to campus. I have a few minutes of uncertainty as Dave does not immediately respond when I buzz—he is somewhere in the building locking up for the weekend. I call Reception but I get the machine. I am about to leave, having waited for a full ten minutes with growing dejection, when he appears and opens the door to me!!! I stash my buys, rearrange and lock my cases up and say goodbye to him. I will be back or the last time in a few days to retrieve them and leave.

Off for a Nap:

The good thing about staying so close to campus is that I can nip back into bed for a nap.  It is 4.00 pm which is 9.30 pm in Bombay and jetlag is making me sluggish. If I am to stay awake through the play, I need a nap. I walk back to my empty room, get into bed, place my alarm for 6. 15 pm and try to get a few zzzzs. But, annoyingly, sleep eludes me completely. After an hour, just before the alarms goes off, I get out of bed and make myself a sandwich with the Wolseley’s toast and some Waitrose onion jam that I love. Fifteen minutes later, I am on the bus and off to Trafalgar Studios where I reach in about 20 minutes, well in time for the play.

Buried Child at the West End:

            Ed Harris, one of America’s iconic actors, is sitting on stage smoking when I take my seat. He coughs occasionally as he gets into characters long before the curtain rises. For the next three hours, we learn about the misgivings of a dysfunctional family in middle America—the kind they say voted for Trump! It is a dark comedy with a seriously stark denouement that leave the audience staggering. Excellent performances, a brilliant script, perfect timing make it memorable. It is a brilliant night at the theater. It is worth every penny of my money.

Back home on the Bus:

It is about 10. 30pm when I stand at the bus stop at Trafalgar Square which is still buzzing with Saturday night revelers. In five minutes, I am in my bus and ten minutes later, I am walking through the streets to get to my dorm. I am sleepy and can barely keep my eyes open. It is with difficulty that I stay awake as I brush my teeth and then get straight into bed.

It has been a marvelous return to my favorite city—a homecoming in every sense of the term. I am happy that I am making the most of every second and still ticking items off that disappearing Bucket List.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Bye Bye Bombay (Sob! Sob!). Hiya London (Yes, Again!)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bombay-London

On a red letter day for America (although many I know associate it with black for mourning), when Donald Trump got sworn in as 45th President of the United States of America, I arrived in London. It was one of the saddest flights I can ever remember as I sobbed bitterly through half of it. It had been a very painful departure from my brother Russel and my Dad and the two of us had wept freely—since our partings in the past have never been anywhere as tearful, I was left with a very fearful feeling that was rolled up in all sorts of dark premonitions—God forbid that anything should happen to either one of us. When Shakespeare said that Parting is such sweet sorrow, he had not seen our parting. There was nothing sweet about it—just hard raw painful grieving at saying goodbye.

Which, when you come to think about it, means that I had a splendid time in Bombay and made the very best of my time with my loved ones there. The young man who was seated besides me and whose heart broke for my loss said, Your father is so blessed to have a daughter who loves him as much as you do. As you can imagine, this only triggered more tears as my shoulders shook with the enormity of my loss. Still, that said, the flight was comfortable and being that it was in the middle of the night, I as glad I snatched about 6 hours of sleep—when I wasn’t crying, I was asleep!—which left me fresh as a daisy when we alighted in London after flying over the beautifully illuminated monuments of the Thames—Tower Bridge, the London Eye, The Shard, etc. On a cloudless night, they glittered like jewels just before we touched down.

Immigration was the worst I have ever been through—it took a whole hour and twenty minutes. But there was no wait for my baggage. I grabbed it, walked briskly to the Tube, hopped into it to Holborn and was delighted to have a young man offer to assist with one of my cases as we negotiated a few stairs. Then I was in a black cab heading to NYU where my other case had been stowed. I spent the next hour sorting through my stuff, emptying the little carryon case that my friend Raquel had lent me, putting together a back pack with the few things I would need for the next week while in Oxford and Essex and then I was off. I stowed off some of my things in the Porter’s Room and left to meet Raquel.

Into the Tube I hopped again on a very chilly day. But the sun was out and flooded the city with golden light. It was glorious. In about half an hour, I was in Maida Vale, taking the stairs up to Raquel’s place where I met her and was sorry to find that her son was unwell and had stayed home from school. We spent about half an hour together, exchanged the gifts I had brought her from India and took possession with delight of the gift she had bought me—Michael Chabon’s new book Moonglow, which she had got signed from me by him. I did not stay long as I had heaps to do. We said our goodbyes and I left on the Tube again and back to NYU.

I spent the next hour in my office, eating lunch (Curried Laksa Soup from Sainsbury’s) and getting some work done on my computer and then I left with my back pack to check into my digs for the next two nights—the Youth Hostel at Bolsover Street in Fitzrovia, not far from NYU at all—which is why I picked it. I found it soon enough (after a twenty minute trek) and found my bunk bed in a 6 bedded female bunk. It was all very next and clean and comfortable and after stashing my backpack in the cabinet with a lock, I left for my next appointment.

I was headed next to Victoria where I reached on the Tube from Oxford Circus (to which I walked from my hostel). I arrived at Elizabeth Street to buy a bottle of perfume from Jo Loves and then I walked to Chelsea for my next appointment—Tea with my friends Michael and Cynthia at their home. They were waiting for me with hot lemony tea and slices of stolen—one of which Cynthia gifted me. We had a lovely visit indeed but I left them at 5.30 to keep my next appointment. A 6.30 pm coffee meeting at Café Veragnano on Charing Cross Street with Natalie Golding whom I was meeting for the first time after following her on Twitter for a couple of year. She turned out to be a lovely bubbly person and our chatter was constant and fun. I had the mocha latte and we split a chocolate tart—which was really delicious. I chose the place as my friend Rahul had told me that it was London’s oldest coffee shop and one of the best renowned.

An hour later, I left with her on the Tube again to get back to my hostel where, being deeply jetlagged, I fell asleep after brushing my teeth in exactly half an hour at 8. 30 pm.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…